“Unintended Wisdom” by Mark W. Harris – November 30, 2008

“Unintended Wisdom” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – November 30, 2008

Call to Worship from East Coker, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

“Unintended Wisdom” – Mark W. Harris

This morning’s opening words remind me of some of Jesus’ parables. There is a kind of backwards, almost startling character to the nature of the words. You need to become like a child in order to enter the most exalted place of all, the last shall be first, the rich cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. “You must go through the way in which you are not.” I reread those words when I was glancing at an old General Assembly essay by my colleague Gordon McKeeman. You must see the sacred in the banal. You must find wisdom in the insult. Has anyone ever said something to you that seemed insulting or hurtful at first, but then you realized that it carried a great deal of truth in it? A few months back a friend was telling me how he had been present for the births of all his children, but he especially recalled when his son was born. Everyone in the delivery room was wearing scrubs and a mask, but he was not, and so he was concerned that he might get germs on the baby, and felt anxious about picking him up, and finally said, “I don’t have a mask!”. A bellicose nurse then bellowed back, “you have to take him home, you know!” This meant he was going to be exposed to lots of germs, and that babies are a lot tougher than we think, so he should pick him up already! Although the nurse was castigating him for not picking up his son, the wisdom he gleaned was that children are pretty resilient, and usually survive parenting that is never mistake or germ free.

It is curious how much wisdom we glean from life often comes in a backhanded or unintentional way, almost by accident. Perhaps the problem is that we expect we will learn great things from the experts, and can often be disappointed because their fame is part narcissism and self-promotion, and part publicity. When I was in graduate school in history, we had one of the best known colonial historians in the country on our faculty. When he moved through the corridors of the history building he always had this little retinue of devotees following in the footsteps of the esteemed master. It turned out that he was rather a difficult person to deal with, and he was mostly interested in his own research, and the book he was working on rather than helping his students. While my friends thought that worshipping the famous person would get them some where, I soon learned that he did not care about his students. I first thought it would be great to work with this famous historian, but the real lesson was, “Following the stars won’t bring you stardom.” Yet many of us still find it hard to believe that. I was deeply disappointed in a colleague who quit the ministerial support group I am in, so that he could be in the group with all those who are perceived as famous.

The truth is much of the wisdom we gain in life comes when we least expect it, or may not fit what we presume is true, such as, we will get more out of an experience if we work with the most famous people. There s a story about the Sufi fool Nasrudin, who was working in his garden one day. He became tired and sat down under a walnut tree, and soon began musing about the natural surroundings he observed around him. Allah, he said, your greatness is beyond dispute, and you have created a beautiful world, but your wisdom is not always apparent. I am looking at this wonderful, large pumpkin, and yet it grows on a spindly little vine. And conversely, the tiny, insignificant walnut grows on this massive tree that provides such lovely shade for me. If I had been planning things , he said, I would have hung the massive vegetable from the lordly tree, and then grew the tiny little walnut from the vine that clings to the ground. Then he closed his eyes, and dreamed of other things he might have done differently. A cool breeze stirred the branches, and soon a walnut fell and landed smack on his head. He rubbed the little lump, and as he did so an understanding smile crossed his lips. Oh Allah, he said, as he turned toward Mecca, thy wisdom is great. What if I had been hit in the head with the giant, orange pumpkin? Perhaps it is just as well that Isaac Newton was hit with an apple, rather than a blue hubbard squash, for civilization might have needed to wait a century or two for some other scientist to understand the universal law of gravitation.

In 1767, Joseph Priestley, the famous Unitarian minister and scientist, and his wife Mary moved to Leeds in the midlands of England where he took charge of the congregation known as Mill Hill Chapel.  Just by chance, they took up residence next door to a brewery and this soon led him to begin experiments on the carbon dioxide, that was produced in unlimited supplies in the brewing process.  Priestley later wrote of his efforts to “improve the water by impregnating it with fixed air”, and in 1772 he announced his invention of soda-water. Without this accidental bit of wisdom or knowledge gleaned from the brewery, we might still be waiting to drink our first Diet Coke. Of course history is filled with these kinds of unintentional discoveries from perhaps the most famous, that of penicillin, discovered because a fungal mold prevented a staphylococcus bacteria from growing, to the most refreshing, an ice cream cone, from a thin rolled wafer because they ran out of dishes at the World’s Fair in 1909.

We come to see that the expected or the obvious may not result in the greatest wisdom. On Thanksgiving I was speaking to Andrea’s brother about his seemingly miraculous cure from asthma. He has suffered form asthma his entire life, and had always been prescribed inhalers as the one true remedy from his affliction. He had gone to great lengths to try to have bedding he was not allergic to, and to have a home that was as clean of dust mites as possible, but he still continued to suffer. Things got so bad that he was struggling to breathe even with constant inhaler use. Finally, he went to a naturopath, not a famous asthma doctor. The first thing the naturopathic doctor did was test him for allergies. He immediately learned he had a severe wheat and dairy allergy. Now that he doesn’t eat either of them , he is breathing pretty well. When he went back to his asthma doctor, the physician said, “Hey, you don’t have asthma anymore. I don’t need to see you.” But he wasn’t willing to attribute the cure to diet. He’d rather believe it was a miracle. But Kevin knows the change in the way he feels is because of his diet. While the traditional or prescribed cure did not work for him, he had to experiment to see what would help. He said he just kept trying to learn as much as he could.

We can find cures or answers by experimenting, or by not following conventional wisdom. We can also find wisdom in balancing society’s conventions with assertions of our own integrity. When Theodore Parker published his “Experiences as a Minister,” in 1859, he told a story he remembered from his early days of ministry. He wrote, “A rough blacksmith once asked me in my youth, “Do you think a minister would dare tell his audience of their actual faults?” – “Certainly I do!” was my boyish answer. “Humph!” rejoined the smith, “I should like to have him begin then.” This came at time when Unitarian churches were sometimes the purveyors of wealth and high culture in greater Boston, and perhaps prone to accepting proper appearance as more important than truth.

Some of the wisdom we learn can not only be unexpected, but also quite painful. As many of you know, some years ago, a small group in my former congregation wanted to see me ousted from the position as minister. I think I naively thought that if you do the very best job you can do, always fulfill your responsibilities, and are rewarded with a good deal of success, that you cannot be fired from your job. Of course this is a ridiculous thing to believe. People have jobs taken from them all the time, and I know this. I have seen it happen to some of you. Yet I was still a bit stunned when this small group succeeded in convincing the Parish committee, and district and UUA representatives that because they wished for me to go, we should let them win, and they did. I remember my colleague Scotty McLennan saying, if they can do this to you, they can do it to anybody. While this affirmed that I was a valued minister, it didn’t change the bare facts.
Perhaps most grievous of all was the proposed acquiescence with a lie. Most of the congregation had no idea of any trouble, and these folks thought it best if it remained that way. The solution was simple. What the denominational authorities proposed to me was that I appear before a Congregational meeting, and pretend that I really wanted to resign. This was a bad idea. The ministry is a profession grounded in integrity. Do you want a minister who can lie successfully? But in my brokenness, I tried. And at the congregational meeting, I broke down into tears, and couldn’t. The parish chair was furious. What was my lesson? I could have taken some negative unexpected wisdom out of this, like always watch your back side, and don’t trust the people. But it was important for me to learn what life feels like; what can happen to us. Sometimes things don’t work out, and it is not necessarily your fault. But the larger wisdom was that you are not fooling anybody, most especially yourself, when you try to perpetrate a lie to save an image. Maybe we can’t save ourselves from pain, but we don’t have to lose the solace of the truth, too.

Another thing that may be unintended wisdom is when we discover the effect we have upon others. We sometimes forget the impact we have if we only focus on how we feel. Earlier this fall, my colleague Mary Harrington quoted from the book, My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Remen. “It has taken me a long time to realize that I have an effect on the people around me. Like many people who were different when they were young, I suffered for years from shyness and a lack of self worth. All but invisible to myself, I believed I was invisible to others as well and that my presence or absence had little or no influence on anyone. In my early days I would often not respond to a written invitation or return a phone message. Sometimes I would leave a party without a word to anyone, including the host or hostess, It simply never occurred to me that anyone might notice that I had not responded or that I was no longer there, that it might matter. Years later I was stunned to discover that all those years I had been seen as aloof and rude. And that my behavior often hurt people.” There is wisdom in knowing that you leave a message in your comings and goings, in your hellos and goodbyes, that people notice you, that you count, and that people count on you to be respectful and understanding of their overtures and invitations and desire to be with you. But it is wisdom we cannot receive if we don’t believe in our own worth first. If we do not value ourselves enough to know that others like us and feel badly when we dismiss that.

The truth is around us all the time, and perhaps not in the most esteemed person, or the holiest of shrines. In the novel Brick Lane, the husband Chanu has decided that the family will return to Bangladesh from their London home. Nazneen, his wife, asks, “Is this true?” He then speaks of putting truth to the test. We accept so many things as true. That doing a good job means you will never be fired. That we are so worthless we can slip away without anyone really noticing us. That I can’t breathe without the inhaler. Put to the test and we find that the world is complex. You are intertwined with others. “When you feel something so strongly that it can’t be questioned, you have to ask yourself – is this true?” In the book Yearnings by Rabbi Irwin Kula, he quotes his mother, who once said to him “When you’ve got an answer, it’s time to find better questions.” Underlying this matriarchal wisdom is the truth that no single story can capture the meaning. You may feel like walking out of a room, but doing so does not merely impact you or what you need to do, but it also impacts others. We find more wisdom the deeper we go. We find more wisdom when we hear more stories.

Stories remind us that everybody needs to be heard. Stories challenge us with new truths, new complexities; an angle that enriches us all. Here was the important professor who only cared for his research hounded by students who wanted to learn. Here, too was the woman who felt so badly about herself she thought she didn’t matter, and yet she offended others in her very attempt to be invisible. Wisdom is found in those stories that we find hard to embrace because they force us to go deeper into ourselves, and connect with those who have a claim on truth that is different than our own. An asthma doctor whose patient is cured, but not by the medicine he prescribed. Hearing this truth embraces a deeper wisdom about life. We must doubt our truth to enter a path to deeper wisdom, and we find the holy in these little kernels of truth – in the incidental and in the accidental stories we share. We find it in the rude nurse who says, pick up the baby already and stop being a wimp; in the willingness to experiment and test the truth; in the truth of knowing our impact on others. That is where we find love, in the most unexpected places. The season of Advent reminds us that we are about to retell a story where we find that holiest of feelings, not in the cathedral or the castle or in the realms of power and privilege, but in the person we think of as helpless, the baby, and in the place that is lowly, the stable filled with animals. May we reach deeper for that unintended wisdom that is waiting to be gleaned from our lives.

Closing Words from Tennessee Williams, Where I Live

The great and only possible dignity of man lies in his power deliberately to choose certain moral values by which to live steadfastly, as if he, too, like a character in a play, were immured against the corrupting rush of time. Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the greatest magic trick of human existence.